Charli XCX: “I like playing games with pop music. I enjoy poking fun at it”

The pop innovator’s blood-splattered, chart-topping fifth album ‘Crash’ embraced the dark arts of the music industry. Following its immense success and the end of her record label contract, Charli XCX’s destiny is in her hands

For some reason, Halloween and Charli XCX appear to go hand in hand. Maybe it’s permanently ingrained in the memory after her show at London’s O2 Academy Brixton on All Hallows Eve in 2019 filled the venue up with punters wearing PVC devil horns; perhaps her latest album ‘Crash’s blood-splattered links to David Cronenberg’s 1996 psychological thriller of the same name plays its own part. For Charli herself, the association with the spookiest night of the year has been weighing on her heavily. “Because I am sort of… surrounded by gays who weirdly know how to do it, the pressure’s really on, you know?” she confides in NME, in a gravely serious tone.

“Having said that, I did have a really, really good idea,” Charli suddenly exclaims, back in London and (relatively) fresh-faced following Paris Fashion Week. She casually announces that she’s been on the blower with a certain pal from New Zealand to discuss a joint Freaky Friday-esque costume idea. “I thought I could be Lorde for Halloween, and maybe cover ‘Royals…’” she ponders.

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

Based on a now-beloved meme among Angels – the witty name she’s given to her fans – the hypothetical outfit riffs on Charli getting mistaken for Lorde in a comedy interview eight years ago. Comparisons have persisted ever since, mostly as one of her fandom’s many in-jokes. At show after show now, fans rock up with handmade signs demanding that she “play ‘Royals’”, Lorde’s 2013 breakout hit; on one occasion, Charli (jokingly) claimed that she ghost-wrote the song for Ella Yelich-O’Connor. Still, a couple of people have been genuinely fooled. Somewhere out there, an oblivious taxi driver proudly owns a forged version of Lorde’s autograph by Charli herself.

“I didn’t want it to seem like I was trolling, so I actually texted Lorde. And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about being you for Halloween, it’s all a good vibe, how do you feel about it?’” she recounts, laughing. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, great. I’ll just be you.’ Then we both realised we’re as lazy as each other when it comes to putting effort into Halloween. We’ll just park the idea for a year when we can be bothered, but the thought was there. It’s definitely a break the internet moment.”

This is hardly the first time that Charli XCX has gamely joined in with this kind of lighthearted piss-taking. After a fan famously rocked up at a past meet-and-greet and asked her to autograph an anal douche – prompting days-worth of truly surreal discourse – Charli responded by selling enemas bearing her signature as part of her official merch line, while also taking aim at those positioning her as a “helpless damsel” in a statement.

“Lorde and I were going to dress up as each other for Halloween. But we’re both too lazy so we’ll park the idea for next year”

In a perfect offering for Angels who bombard her with constant requests for fan-favourite ‘Taxi’ – her unreleased collaboration with the late, pioneering producer SOPHIE – the singer played fans out of her biggest show to date at Ally Pally earlier this year by blasting it over the venue soundsystem. Elsewhere on the tour, she was candid about her real reasons for not performing it, telling fans she finds its close emotional link to one of her most beloved collaborators tough.

While a shift towards valuing honesty, relatability and authenticity takes hold elsewhere – and the pop star certainly also has a frank and direct dialogue with her fans – Charli XCX is equally interested in pop’s more ludicrous main characters, and has a keen grasp of both absurdity and excess.

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

Compared with her previous releases, this year’s ‘Crash’ – her first Number One album in the UK – marked a tonal shift for an artist who has simultaneously rejected and courted the mainstream over the course of her decade-plus career. As Charli notes to NME: “I don’t feel like I’ve had a very traditional trajectory…”

As a teenager, the Essex-raised artist took out a loan from her parents to fund the recording of her unreleased promo debut ‘14’, which remains a fun, scrappy listen. Her debut album proper, 2013’s ‘True Romance’, combined a clear love of clean pop melody with an eclectic ear for subversion, sampling the likes of Gold Panda and Blood Orange. Just when mainstream stardom seemed as if it could be beckoning, she veered the other way with the uneven, pop-punk influenced ‘Sucker’ in 2015. Here, Rita Ora guest spots and mega-hits like ‘Boom Clap’ jostled side-by-side with yé-yé songs about wanking (‘Body of My Own’).

A pair of rapidly released mixtapes – ’Pop 2’ and ‘Number 1 Angel’ – followed, chockablock with the like-minded collaborators who seemed to creatively re-energize her. By the time ‘Charli’ came out in 2019, it felt like she had found her feet as an artist able to harness mainstream appeal and excite the underground. Still, its PC Music-adjacent, hyper-saturated pop treatments failed to break into the Top 10 of the UK albums chart. Like many of Charli’s greatest songs – ’Vroom Vroom’, ‘Claws’, ‘Unlock It’ – it felt intensely futuristic, like the pop music of fifty years into the future.

Charli XCX
Charli XCX on the cover of NME

2020’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ and its unfiltered window into Charli’s isolation became an early pandemic classic, her direct dialogue with fans during its creation offering unique insight. Her latest album, ‘Crash’, would prove quite the pivot. Announcing the record with a gravestone, complete with campy claps of stage-lightening and the artist’s own name engraved into the headstone, it appeared to mark the death of Charli XCX as we know her, rendered in glossy, hyper-polished pop.

Initially, she admits, Charli set out to strike a deal with the devil. After years of hopping between two distinct worlds – the chart-topper and the left-field provocateur – she decided to conclude her five-album deal with Atlantic Records by making the kind of an album she’d always resisted in the past.

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

“To be famous – a stratospheric level of famous – you have to fucking want that shit to happen to you, and you have to do the deal with the devil,” she says. “You have to fucking go there and run people over. I’m not saying it’s a negative thing, it’s not, but I think with ‘Crash’ I definitely wanted to play that game. But I think because of who I am, and the artist that I am and the reference points that I have and the world that I come from, it’s like… there’s just this part of my brain that doesn’t want to function like that.”

Was there ever a degree of subversion at play in the beginning; was she toying with the idea of creating a pure-pop record on her own twisted terms? Charli disagrees. ”I don’t think I was ever like: ‘I’m going to sell out the mainstream, but I’m going to do it my way’. I was like, ‘I want to sell out and be mainstream… ‘“

“I have confusing feelings about [the success of ‘I Love It’]. I was jealous, and a little bit regretful”

She adds that 2015’s “punk, guitar-inspired album” ‘Sucker’ and 2016’s experimental electronic single ‘Vroom Vroom’ were both created as direct reactions to the success of her more mainstream hits. Until its semi-ironic reinvention during this year’s tour, ‘Sucker’s biggest hit ‘Boom Clap’ had been conspicuously absent from most of Charli’s live shows. Collaborations with Iggy Azalea on 2014’s Clueless-nodding ‘Fancy’ and a team-up in 2012 with Swedish duo Icona Pop on ‘I Love It’ remain some of her most commercially successful singles.

In the run-up to the release of ‘Sucker’, Charli told DIY that the success of ‘I Love It’ – a song Charli wrote, gave away and would then chart at Number One in the UK – and the expectation that she could simply continue to churn out similar hits, caused her to temporarily fall out of love with pop music.

A decade on from that release, her perspective has shifted: “I have a lot of quite confusing feelings about it. In part I was like, just straight-up jealous,” she says. “I was jealous, and a little bit regretful. That song is kind of like when you go through a break-up and your ex gets a new partner before you or whatever, and you see it on the internet. You’re constantly reminded of it,” she says.

In some ways, then, ‘Crash’ took things full circle, with Charli opting to take the approach of a classic major label pop star. As well as bringing in an A&R for the first time to help with steering the artistic process, she also decided to accept pitches from outside songwriters. “What’s funny is that no one actually does that shit anymore,” she observes. Though the initial goal was to commit to the “old school depiction of what a pop star is,” Charli admits she ended up heading in a different direction.

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

Instead, recalling the cartoonish, mechanicised funk production of Janet Jackson’s 1986 classic ‘Control’, and touching on themes of creative independence along the way, ‘Crash’ ended up feeling like the quintessential Charli album. “What you want, I ain’t got it,” she sang on ‘New Shapes’, seeming to briefly allude to her non-traditional career trajectory alongside Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek; two similiar artists who interchangeably infiltrate and move away from mainstream pop.

On the chart-bothering ‘Used To Know Me’, which heavily samples from Robin S’s ‘90s house hit ‘Show Me Love’ Charli meshes together her undeniable ear for a pop banger with more complicated musings that seem to hint at the space she now occupies as an artist. “You say I’m turning evil, I say I’m turning pure.” Why does she think this internal creative grappling stems from? “There’s this subconscious resistance that I just can’t undo,” she replies. “I just can’t fully let go of the reins.”

“I don’t feel like I’ve had a very traditional career trajectory”

Charli offers up the theory that her music contains an integral sense of “push and pull”, continually tugging her between two distinct worlds. As well as striving to be “the mainstream Pop Girl,” there’s also an impulse pulling her towards the “deep end, and doing something a bit more left. I think that’s always going to be a battle that I have,” she points out, “but I also think that it’s that tension that makes me make the music that I make.”

“I like playing games with pop music. Pop music has never just been as simple as being a pop star and releasing music. In a way I would love it – if it was just that for me – but then I think I would be a more boring artist who will probably be forgotten. I enjoy the nuances of this fucked up industry and game-playing and all of these strings that happen behind the scenes… I’m enjoying that element of pop music. I enjoy poking fun at it, I enjoy buying into it, believing it, rejecting it, being a mess, and the chaos within it.”

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

With ‘Crash’, Charli’s major label deal finally drew to a close, concluding a chapter of her career that has proved fascinating, confusing, and frustrating all at once. At times, the musician appeared trapped, releasing her experimental releases ‘Number 1 Angel’ and ‘Pop 2’ as mixtapes in order to circumvent the slower pace. Still, doing so meant the mixtapes didn’t count towards the total number of albums she was contracted to deliver.

Tellingly, the original chorus lyric on 2019’s ‘Gone’ hinted at discontent: “I feel so unstable fucking hate my label”. Though she would brush aside any animosity, not everyone believed her. Dishing out advice for rising musicians on Twitter last year, meanwhile, she wrote “it only gets worse”. Now, however, the ball is in her court. Has she given any thought to what she’d like her career to look like next?

“I mean, until this point, I’ve been saying no…” she laughs, “but that would be a lie.”

“There’s so many interesting options that would work for me,” Charli elaborates. She’s definitely thinking about going independent, she says, but “is not sure if I’m ready to do that”. The classic structure of life at a major label still feels appealing, despite her issues with its various restrictions: “I like not having to foot the bill for everything at the beginning, that’s quite scary. Especially when you want to do things on the kind of scale that I did on the last record. I’m still exploring, definitely.”

Though Charli insists that she’s still firmly in “the sponge phase” and “absorbing lots of different things,” the artist also confirms that she’s been thinking about the direction of her next release, and has a vague vision in mind for it.

“I want to be completely committed to an idea. I want no more fear going forward”

“I’ve known for a while the general direction of where I want to go… and it’s back to what was really inspiring me when I began making music in 2006 and 2007, you know? I think it will be familiar, but hopefully just more intensely committed than before.” And what precisely inspired her, back in the days of cadging lifts to play raves and warehouse parties in the capital? Charli won’t be drawn any further on specifics: ”I don’t really want to say…” she says, “people can Google it, or whatever”.

Charli XCX
Credit: Terrence O’Connor

Here’s an educated guess: the squealing, nu-ravey electro-pop songs of her unreleased debut album ‘14’ – recorded when she was in her teens – feels like a good place to start. That, and Charli’s favourite label Ed Banger, home to French electronic artists like Justice, SebastiAn and Uffie. “Whenever I would listen to their music, I felt like I was in a movie, and it made me feel alive,” she told Red Bull two years ago. “Even still, to this day, apart from SOPHIE and A.G. [Cook], [there’s] not a lot of music makes me feel truly alive like that French electro stuff did.”

Elsewhere, Charli has also been busy writing a book, though she’s unwilling to delve any further into what form it might take “in case it turns out to be really shit”. She’s called upon her mate, former Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw – who published his memoir this year – for advice.

“I was so into it, and then I hit a wall and haven’t touched it since,” she laughs. “I got my agents all riled up, sent them four pages, and then ghosted them. I was asking Grimmy about the process, and he said you kind of have these moments of lightning bolt inspiration, and then you kind of put it down,” she says. “When the time pressure’s on you, then you really do it full steam, so maybe I’ll be a bit like that? There’s no deadline.”

It’s a story worth telling. After a decade of struggling with feeling “like an outsider” the artist has carved out a space for the bold, convicted left-field pop music that she’s always wanted to make. In the future, she’s determined to push it even further. “I think I’ve just been really inspired by conviction recently,” she says. “I always have been, but I had to witness it in person to really, fully understand that. I want to be completely committed and convicted to an idea and just fuck fear. I think that’s really what it is. No more fear going forward,” she says.

“No fear of anyone on the business side holding you back, no fear of people not understanding, no fear of fans being disappointed if maybe you don’t do exactly what they think they want from you, and no fear from yourself. No fucking fear! I want tunnel vision. That’s the way forward!”

Charli XCX’s ‘Crash’ is out now

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